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Seeds for a new citizenship of women in the Church

03 April 2021

“It is a great opportunity to work for the future of the Church.” With these words, alongside Bishop Georg Bätzig, this was how an excited Beate Gilles herself on February 23, after the announcement of her appointment as general secretary of the German Bishops' Conference. This was an unprecedented event, at least as far as Europe is concerned. However, throughout the world there is the precedent of Sister Hermenegild Makoro, who has held the same position in the Conference of Southern African Bishops since 2012. In keeping with the novelist Agatha Christie, two clues do not always make a proof. In the investigation of reality, including ecclesial reality, clues deserve to be observed carefully. In recent times, a number of women have been called to leadership roles in communities and ecclesial realities in different parts of the globe. This is a sign that exclusion from the priesthood should not automatically translate into female subordination to the “clerical male”. Moreover, full recognition of the faithful does not only come through ministerial ordination. Pope Francis has repeated this several times. He has followed up his words with the assignment of prominent roles within Vatican institutions to lay and religious women. For example, in February, the appointment of Sister Nathalie Becquart, the under-secretary of the Synod of Bishops; in March, that of Sister Nuria Calduch-Benages, the new secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and who is the first woman to hold this position. 

At the same time as Beate Gilles was nominated, in Germany, the Bishop of Essen, Franz-Josep Overbeck, chose laywoman Sandra Schnell as parish commissioner of St Matthew’s, a position that she will assume from Easter, and the first time a woman has been nominated. Since Easter, she has been in charge of the management of the parish, with the exception of the celebration of the sacraments, which is entrusted to Fr Johannes Broxtermann.

In the Mission de France,  for the past three years, another laywoman, Anne Soncarrieu, has accompanied the bishop and the vicar general as a “general delegate”. Soncarrieu explained that her aim is to affirm equal dignity and responsibility among the baptised. In Latin America, from Venezuela to Chile, many similar experiments are underway. The most innovative was the appointment of Sister Nelly León, formerly chaplain of the Buen Pastor prison in Santiago, as episcopal delegate for the general pastoral care of the Chilean diocese of San Felipe y Petorca.

On 5 March, the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network also decided to expand its presidency - made up of Cardinal Pedro Barreto, Bishop Rafael Cob and Brother João Gutemberg - to include, in addition to the assistant secretary, Rodrigo Fadul Andrade, two councillors: the religious María Carmelita da Lima Conceicão, and Yésica Patiachi Tayori, a teacher and leader of the indigenous Amazonian Harakbut people. Something is moving, albeit in small steps. While here and there, although still episodically, the seeds of a new possible “citizenship” of women in the Church are being sown.

by Lucia Capuzzi
Journalist at “Avvenire”